IRVINE, Calif. — His comeback performances may not have been particularly eye-catching so far, save for the first and the most recent in the 100-meter butterfly, but there seems little doubt that everyone competing with him still is looking over a shoulder at Michael Phelps.
"It’s always scary," Olympic backstroke champion Matt Grevers said. "You can never doubt him."
Grevers suddenly finds himself racing Phelps in events the sport’s greatest champion has seldom or never done at a U.S. championships. One was Wednesday’s 100 freestyle. Another will be Saturday’s 100 backstroke, the race in which Grevers won his individual Olympic gold-medal.
No one wound up having much to fear from Phelps in the 100 free final Wednesday night. Losing all momentum when he barely touched the wall at 50 meters, he was a distant seventh in 49.17 seconds to winner Nathan Adrian (48.31).
"It stinks I missed the first wall," Phelps said. "It’s kind of frustrating. We’ll never know where we are in the race right now. (And) I felt really good the first 50."
Ryan Lochte was second in 48.96 while Winnetka’s Conor Dwyer took fourth (49.06), earning a relay place on the U.S. team for the upcoming Pan Pacific Championships. Grevers was sixth.
"It’s dumb," Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, said of the bad turn. "Take a year off, swim just two 100s (before this), it’s a tall order."
Missy Franklin, quadruple Olympic gold medalist in 2012, won the women’s 100, equaling her meet record time of 53.43.
Phelps, 29, at his first major meet since the 2012 Olympics, has chosen to focus on shorter distances since returning to serious training late last year.
Phelps had won national titles in the 100 free from 2003 through 2005 but dropped it from his overloaded competitive program at nationals after that. He was still fast enough at the distance to earn places on U.S. 4 x 100 free relays at world and Olympic meets.
In Wednesday morning’s 100 heats, Phelps plodded through the first 50 meters before finishing impressively with the third fastest time, 48.77 seconds.
Phelps also is scheduled to race the 100 back, which he never has done internationally, 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley at this five-day nationals, selection meet for the Pac Pacific Championships two weeks from now in Australia. Swimmers with the best times from nationals and Pan Pacs will make the U.S. team for the 2015 World Championships.
He came into the meet with the world’s third fastest time this season in the 100 butterfly, the No. 23 time in the 100 free (22nd after the prelims) and 24th in the 200 IM.
"No matter what event it is, he is going to bring his A game and be prepared," said Chase Kalisz, the reigning NCAA 400 IM champion for Georgia who trains with Phelps at North Baltimore Aquatic Club during the summer. "He knows how to get the best out of himself with whatever training he has done."
Or whatever suit he uses. Phelps, who made millions from Speedo over his career, has just signed a deal with Aqua Sphere through the 2020 Olympics for an unspecified amount, but international rules prevent him from wearing its suit until Jan. 1.
Aqua Sphere clearly is counting on him to show off their product at least at the next Olympics, no matter that Phelps and Bowman are being coy about how far the comeback will go — or the ultimate goal for someone who set Olympic records for gold (18) and total (22) medals and a zillion individual world records, three of which he still holds.
There definitely is more than just wanting to shed the 30 pounds gained in a year of being America’s guest following his ostensible retirement after the London Olympics. In the past few months, Phelps has repeatedly said how much he is enjoying workouts that had become drudgery in the years following his record-breaking eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics. Part of that pleasure obviously owes to a lighter training load.
"There are always things I still want to do and achieve, and that’s part of the reason why I’m here," Phelps said. "You (media) are not going to get what it is. You guys know me too well."
Becca Mann of Homer Glen was third in the 800 free final, won easily by world record-holder Katie Ledecky. Only the top two go to Pan Pacs in that event. . Glenview’s Olivia Smoliga, whose training has been curtailed by mononucleosis, finished 25th in the heats of the 100 freestyle in a personal best 55.73.